Biology is the most powerful technology ever created. DNA is software, protein are hardware, cells are factories.
Everyone knows protein is important for muscle growth.
How much do you need?
How often should you eat it?
And is it true that we can only digest and absorb 30 gr of protein at a time?
This article is going to answer all of these questions and more, using the latest research on the topic of protein intake and muscle growth.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
Keep reading to maximally stimulate your brain protein synthesis.
What is protein?
Along with carbohydrate and dietary fat, protein is one of the three macronutrients contained within our food sources.
In the human body, it’s a structural component of almost any tissue you can think of: muscle, bone, skin, hair, etc.
Some proteins, called enzymes, are also catalysts of the chemical reactions that are collectively known as our metabolism.
In other words, if the human body were a house, protein would be both the bricks used to build it, and the energy used to power it.
Bodily proteins are chains of different combinations of 20 amino acids, which can be classified as:
The nine essential amino acids include:
Why is protein important for muscle growth?
The human body synthesizes and breaks down protein all the time.
Within muscle, what regulates the maintenance, gain, or loss of tissue is called net protein balance, which is the difference between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown:
Net protein balance = Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) – Muscle protein breakdown (MPB)
Both synthesis and breakdown undergo natural fluctuations throughout the day, so that at times the rate of protein breakdown will exceed that of synthesis, and vice versa at other times.
What matters most for muscle maintenance, gain, or loss is the net protein balance over a longer period of time, not these normal shorter-term fluctuations.
If the rate of muscle protein synthesis matches the rate of muscle protein breakdown over a long period of time, then your muscle mass will be maintained.
On the other hand, if muscle protein synthesis exceeds breakdown, then this extra protein will be utilised to build additional muscle mass.
There are two primary ways to trigger an increase in muscle protein synthesis:
You need both of these processes in order to build more muscle mass… or else we all could just eat a tonne of protein and get jacked without ever lifting a dumbbell, or our butt off the couch.
Therefore, eating enough protein at regular intervals every day is fundamental for muscle growth, but only if you’re also consistent with a well-structured, progressive resistance training program.
What’s the top priority when eating protein?
Your top priority for muscle growth is your total daily protein intake, or how much protein (in grams) you’re eating over a 24-hour period.
The time at which you eat protein, how often you eat it, or how much you have in a single meal, are matters of secondary importance.
So how much protein do you need every day to build muscle?
In the UK, the current recommendation is to eat 0.75 gr of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (0.35 gr per lb). For example, a cisgender woman weighing 60 kg would aim for 45 gr of protein per day.
However, research shows that this isn’t enough protein to build muscle or to prevent the age-related loss of lean body mass – which includes muscle – in older people. Instead, it’s the minimum amount of protein needed to prevent lean body mass losses in average, healthy adults.
For regular exercisers, 1.4 to 2 gr of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (0.6 to 1 gr per lb) is a more appropriate intake to support a variety of training modalities, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN).
In order to optimise muscle growth triggered by resistance training specifically, the sweet spot seems to be 1.6 to 2.2 gr of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (0.7 to 1.1 gr per lb).
As a note, there’s some evidence that older adults may need more protein than their younger counterparts to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Do you need all this protein if you have overweight or obesity?
These recommendations for protein intake are aimed at people of average weight, but they may exceed your individual requirements if you have overweight or obesity due to carrying excess body fat, not extra muscle mass.
If you calculate your protein intake based on your current bodyweight under these circumstances, you’re bound to get a pretty high amount. For instance, if you weigh 120 kg (264 lbs), your protein target at 2 gr of protein per kg of bodyweight would be 240 gr.
This target may be not only harmful, but also unnecessary for these reasons:
Therefore, my suggestion is to do your best to increase your protein target to at least 1.2 gr per kg of bodyweight per day (0.6 gr per lb).
If you can eat more than this amount without the drawbacks I’ve described, then go for it! After all, research suggests that a high-protein diet is unlikely to cause you harm, unless you have a pre-existing health condition that could be worsened by eating more protein (click, click).
Nonetheless, you’ll be most successful when you’re most consistent. So, if you have overweight or obesity, aim to eat as much protein as you’re able to without compromising your overall adherence to your training and nutrition plan.
What are other important protein considerations?
To be clear, your daily protein intake is your first and most important target.
The following considerations are bonuses that you’ll benefit the most from once nailing your daily protein requirements becomes second nature.
Which foods should you get your protein from?
To maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, a 20 to 40 gr serving of protein needs to contain enough of all the essential amino acids. Specifically, 10 to 12 gr of essential amino acids and 1 to 3 gr of leucine seem to be ideal according to the ISSN.
Protein foods that contain all nine essential amino acids in the required quantities, include chicken, fish, meat, eggs, dairy, and soy.
Nonetheless, protein can be found in all foods, even those that we don’t normally consider “protein sources”, such as bread, pasta, nuts, and other carbohydrate and fat sources. However, the protein in these foods is usually low in some of the essential amino acids, so they’re considered lower-quality protein sources.
Should you hit your daily protein target only with higher-quality sources then?
Doing so is a safe bet to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but you can also achieve the right amount of essential amino acids in a single meal and across the day with a combination of lower- and higher-quality sources.
In practical terms, aim to get as much protein as you can from higher-quality sources and from a smaller percentage of lower-quality sources. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, check out this list of higher- and lower-quality sources for your dietary lifestyle.
Sometimes, when you’re eating at maintenance calories or in a surplus, you can run the risk of getting more protein from lower-quality sources than from higher-quality ones, especially when you’re eating a high amount of carbs. For this reason, I sometimes add about 10 gr of protein to my clients’ daily target for every 100 gr of carbs they eat.
For example, if a client is eating 300 gr of carbs per day, I may suggest to increase their daily protein target by 30 gr in order to account for the lower-quality protein they’re bound to get from wholegrains.
How much protein should you have per meal?
In order to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis with a single meal, the general recommendation is to eat at least 0.4 gr of protein per kg of bodyweight (0.2 gr per lb) (click, click).
For the average person, that translates to a protein serving of about 20 to 40 gr.
These are some examples of what a 20 gr serving of high-quality protein can look like:
How many times should you eat protein in a day?
You want to choose a number of daily protein servings that enables you to achieve your total daily requirements and the minimum per-meal threshold of 0.4 gr of protein per kg (0.2 gr per lb).
Moreover, the ISSN reports that eating protein every three to four hours can benefit muscle protein synthesis levels and training performance (click), so one or two protein-containing meals a day might not be the best choice.
On the other hand, eating protein more often than six times per day is likely unnecessary, impractical for most people, and could result in each serving containing less than 0.4 gr of protein per kg (0.2 gr per lb).
Therefore, three to six protein servings per day is an effective and sensible range to aim for.
For instance, if you weigh 60 kg and your daily protein target is 120 gr (60 kg * 2 gr of protein), you can choose from the following ways to distribute your total daily protein intake, so that each serving contains at least 24 gr (60 kg * 0.4 gr of protein = 24 gr):
Should you eat protein immediately before or after training?
There’s an old myth according to which you must eat protein as soon as possible after a workout. Whilst this seems to have been debunked, having protein within one to two hours both before and after training, is likely a safe approach to promote recovery and muscle growth (click).
Therefore, the aim of eating protein before and after training is to ensure that you don’t go longer than three to four hours without it (click).
For example, if you’re training for about 60 to 90 minutes less than two hours after your last protein-containing meal, and you’re going to eat protein less than an hour afterwards, you’re unlikely to need another protein serving right before the session.
On the other hand, if you train first thing in the morning after an overnight fast, you’ve already gone 10 to 12 hours without any food, so eating some protein right before the session becomes a greater concern.
However, you also want to avoid upsetting your stomach, as poor digestion can lead to poor performance. So, if you’re eating 30 to 60 minutes before training, it’d be better to choose a faster-digesting protein source, like whey protein powder.
Should you eat protein before bed?
In addition to spacing out your protein servings by three to four hours, the ISSN suggests that eating a final serving of casein protein (found in dairy and casein protein powder) about an hour before bed may also increase muscle protein synthesis overnight.
However, if your sleep worsens because you’re still digesting this final meal by the time you’re in bed, then it might not be worth your while, as sleep deprivation can have a profoundly negative impact on muscle growth.
A table summary
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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